School holidays offer great opportunities for Australian ‘blackbirders’ operating on the Kokoda Trail.
Blackbirding was a form of slavery which saw Papua New Guineans coerced into working as cheap labour on Queensland sugar plantations in the late 19th Century before it was outlawed.
However the practice has mutated into various forms since then and now involves shady operators who have cashed in on the Kokoda trekking industry over the past decade. Papua New Guinea is a governance free zone for blackbirders who are not subject to the same scrutiny they would receive in Australia.
The current dysfunction and debasement of the Kokoda Trail management authority provides them with free rein to promote themselves as legitimate. They are akin to a malarial parasite running through a quinine free bloodstream. There are no limits to the extent they can exploit local Papua New Guinean guides, carriers and villagers who live in a subsistence economy and are desperate for work.
They are slick and hard to detect. They have established their own ‘Kokoda Tour Operators Association’ to disguise their exploitation and provide a form of self-legitimacy. Their websites boast of emotive ‘passion for our diggers’ amid claims to be ‘historians – explorers – adventurers’ even through there is no prior record of their commitment to these ideals through previous active service or support to veterans’ organizations.
It seems more than coincidence that their faux passion happened to coincide with the opportunity to make a dollar out of it. (more…)
The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) – established to protect the interests of a small group of Australian trek operators (11 of the 36 licensed operators) – has advised that in 2017 ‘KTA permit fees were averaged out at K320 as some operators claimed 50% discount on School Student treks’.
A closer look at the KTA trekker statistics for 2017 reveals that of the 371 claims for the 50% student discount – 312 (or a whopping 85%) came from KTOA members.
The 50% Student Discount was put in place by an Australian operator when the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) was first established in 2004. It was wrong then – and it is wrong now!
This discount means subsistence villagers along the Kokoda Trail have to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students.
This is akin to cheating subsistence villagers out of their fair share of benefits from the Kokoda trekking industry – and as we have just seen from the Australian cricket team – Australians don’t like cheats.
The current dysfunction of the KTA (which is currently under review) allows unscrupulous Australian trek operators to exploit this loophole by continuing to claim the 50% student discount.
If the KTOA wishes to have any semblance of credibility it should make a public announcement that its Australian members will no longer claim this immoral discount.
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The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) was established by a small group of Australian travel operators to protect their financial interests along the Kokoda Trail in PNG.
The welfare of local PNG porters and villagers is obviously not part of their agenda and their use of fake research to justify their exploitation is contrary to the spirit of Kokoda.
This exploitation includes the overloading of porters; abuse of their welfare; and the claiming of shameful student discounts on trek fees.
The KTOA website advises that ‘Members of the association collectively represent more than 75% of trekker number across Kokoda’.
This is fake information. The KTOA membership represents just 30 percent of the 36 trek operators licensed by the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA). Three of the 11 KTOA members appear to be inactive.
According to KTA records a total of 3267 trekkers crossed the trail in 2017 – 2053 (62%) went with KTOA members.
Overloading of PNG Porters
The most abhorrent practice the KTOA advocates is the overloading of porters by its members and their use of fake research to justify it.
In September 2017 a PNG porter engaged by a member of the KTOA died on the trail – according to the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) Ranger at Owers Corner he was overloaded with a 28 kg backpack. Rather than addressing the problem the KTOA accused the KTA Ranger of altering his records without providing any evidence to support their claim. A preliminary investigation by PNG Police Sergeant, Max Maso contradicts their claim:
‘It is evident that the group on this particular trip . . . engaged by . . . (KTOA tour operator) . . . were all overloaded in breach to Code of Conduct stipulated under this code’.
Rather than accepting that there is a problem with the overloading of porters the KTOA went into damage control after Adventure Kokoda advised that the maximum weight allowed for the PNG wartime carriers in 1942 was 18 kg.
On 26 February 2018 the KTOA posted an irrational response to this fact on Facebook:
‘Any operator[i] continuing to use references to conditions and weights carried by carriers on the Kokoda Track in 1942 is still living in the dark colonial days long past. Clearly the welfare of the carriers of the Kokoda campaign was not of primary concern of their colonial masters.
‘Suggestions made recently that the carriers during the war were restricted to carrying 18kgs is a gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked.’
The reference KTOA quoted to justify their exploitation of PNG porters was an unofficial essay written by a junior summer vacation student at the Australian War Memorial!![ii].
The facts are anything but a ‘gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked’ as stated by the KTOA. (more…)
Trekking Kokoda will never be the same without the presence of distinguished elder, Faole Bokoi, to welcome trekkers as they enter Menari village.
Faole was a former luluai (clan leader), village constable and mail carrier under Australian colonial rule. It is unlikely that he was a wartime carrier due to his estimated age. The Australian New Guinea Army Unit recruited boys over the age of 16 years as carriers. Faole would therefore have been 98 years old at the time of his passing. The average life span for PNG males is currently 62 years. It would have meant that Faole would have been 73 years of age when I first met him 25 years ago. I would have estimated his age to be 50-55 years at that time.
This is not meant to detract from the value of his service to his people as the task of carrying mailbags from Owers Corner to the changeover point on the crest between Crossing 1 and Templeton’s Crossing would have been arduous and dangerous. After meeting his fellow Orokaiva mail carriers from Kokoda there would be an exchange of mailbags and Faole would return to Owers Corner.
Faole was a wonderful caring man and a respected elder in Menari.
We are proud of the fact that we were able to contribute to his welfare through our trekkers donating approximately $2,000 each year for the opportunity to be photographed with him. We also paid for an operation on the feet of his grand-daughter, Nancy who was a baby at the time. I recently met Nancy at Owers Corner and she is now a normal healthy teenager as a result of the operation. (more…)
Newspaper reports of a British ‘Reality TV star‘ and his American girlfriend being ambushed, tortured, tormented and raped by ‘cannibals’ on the Kokoda Trail went viral last month. After escaping from their captors the near-naked couple apparently trekked in bare feet for 15 kilometres from Templeton’s Crossing to Alola from where they were evacuated.
The story generated the most negative publicity PNG has experienced in decades. International tourism will take a big hit as a result.
Hopefully it will precipitate a wake-up call amongst government agencies responsible for the Kokoda trekking industry because this couple should never have been issued with a permit to trek without a PNG guide or any emergency equipment. Time will tell.
PNG could become the wartime tourism capital of the Pacific – if they get the model right! It’s an industry waiting to happen. (more…)
Today I was honoured to be guest speaker at the Kenthurst Australia Day ceremony. I decided not to enter the debate on whether it should be called ‘Australia Day’, ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’ as the inner-city commentariat have crowded out that space. I therefore decided to focus on ‘An Australia Day Tribute to a Vietnam Veteran’ that I wrote nine years ago.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today we celebrate Australia Day which marks the anniversary of the raising of the British Flag at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Philip 228 years ago.
It is also the 69th anniversary of the arrival of an 11 year old immigrant boy from Malta. His story epitomizes our Australian story.
We were soldiers in Vietnam where he was blown apart in the minefield protecting the Australian Army Taskforce Base at Nui Dat. He survived against all the odds. This morning I would like to share an Australia Day tribute I wrote after he survived an emergency operation on Anzac Day 2007:
‘Forty days before he woke from a landmine that blew his right leg into the Nui Dat minefield, blasted his right arm off, shattered his left arm, ripped his stomach to shreds, and peppered his body with shrapnel, Sapper John ‘Jethro’ Thompson mumbled to me: ‘I’m not getting out of the army mate – they’re gunna have to build a special dozer I can drive’. ‘No worries Jethro’, I said ‘they’ll do that!’ (more…)